Yakitori Boy $1 skewer night

17 06 2009

Yakitori Boy in Philadelphia sells $1 skewers on Tuesdays. It’s a wonderful thing. You can choose from pork belly, shrimp, chicken, chicken liver, chicken meatballs (tsukune), chicken and scallions, asparagus, eggplant…oh the list goes on. Go with a friend, order 5 skewers each and a $10 bottle of Kirin Ichiban and you are set. Then you just have to settle in and wait for the entertainment to begin. If you love to be center stage but hate waiting for “your song,” Tuesday is a perfect night for karaoke. There were plenty of empty seats when on weekends you can barely walk through.

These are what $1 skewers look like:

$1 skewers

This was my second visit to Yakitori Boy and this time was much better, mostly because I already knew what to expect. There are still some skewers I haven’t tried, so I think that Tuesday is my lucky day.

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Shinjuku Yokocho

12 03 2009

Shinjuku Yokocho is a little warren of two or three alleys under and behind the tracks of Shinjuku station. It’s reputed to have great atmosphere where you can sit on a beer crate, try some “cheap” Japanese snacks (known as yakimono) and generally have a leisurely and inexpensive evening out with friends.

yokocho

The above statement is unfortunately completely untrue. Conceptually, based on the atmosphere of the place–buildings that practically lean in on one another, drunk business men stumbling every which way, and groups of people headed off to sing karaoke now that they have finished happy hour–would lead one to believe it’s a fun place to hang out. Sadly, our experience was horrible. I’ve been here before, about eight years ago, and had an incredible time. But times have changed, and the old fashioned experience of drinking and eating without knowing the price of anything has gone from the guy behind the bar undercutting himself to an exercise in exorbitant pricing.

Place #1 had two young foreign women working the stall. When we gave them our order, they turned on their grill…wait, did I say turned on? Yes, that’s right, instead of the famous charcoal that gives yakitori its phenomenal flavor, they had an electric grill that just cooks stuff. Why not put your food in a George Foreman?! So anyway, we get to the end of our very simple meal, a fairly moderate amount of food- we had our Otoshi (a dish that you are automatically served whether you want it or not)–in this case raw (possibly pickled) chicken skin and a little salt. Not the best Otoshi I’ve ever had. In addition to that we shared one bottle of beer and we had two skewers each of tsukune, shishitou, white meat yakitori, and one with chicken and negi. One skewer of each type: shio (salted) and tare (dipped in sauce). The total bill was around 3,200 yen.

yakitori

That actually seemed kind of fair, but we were a little disappointed with the overall quality and flavor, so with some beer and food in our veins, we went seeking more authentic fare. It would seem that most of the little vendors that churned out good old yakitori have disappeared over the years to be replaced with places that have various specialties and interests. We decided to try a place that looked about as old-fashioned as you could get…biggest mistake ever.

Our barman, an elderly Japanese gent, looked petrified when we walked in and had no idea how to begin communicating with us. The cook on the other hand, started asking, in Japanese, if anyone spoke English. After asserting our knowledge of the language, he shouted at the old guy to take our drink order. The old fella found it in him to ask what we might want, and we got another bottle of beer. I noticed at this point that the place smelled pretty horrible but we were determined we would stay as long as it took us to finish the beer.

It was time to order. No menu, just a conglomeration of various items sitting on the counter top or held in jars full of fluid (an embalmed snake included) behind the counter. I have to admit that this place was beginning to scare me. It didn’t help that the cook was talking about how hot his girlfriend was to the two young guys sitting next to us and occasionally testing us by saying how weird we were. Of course when I saw him pull two freshly grilled newts off his grill (which I believe was also an electric model–what the heck is wrong with these people?) I started to understand why he couldn’t understand what we were doing there.

I ordered hotate (a full scallop roasted on the grill in all it’s liquid–here’s a great photo so you can visualize) and some mushrooms and asparagus for safety’s sake. We told ourselves we could sterilize our stomachs with beer. That’s pretty much what we did. When we asked for the total, it was another 3,000 yen. What?!? For a handful of mushrooms, three spears of asparagus and a single scallop that I could have bought in the local grocery store for about $2 plus a beer? Oh, did I mention that our otoshi here was far worse than the last one? Something the general size and shape of a piece of daikon but, well, soft and creamy, like curdled milk. It wasn’t very tasty and the texture (combined with the overwhelming smell of the place) started to make me feel sick. Rather than argue or deal with him I just left the money on the counter and we were out of there ASAP. I know I may not have left a good impression for foreigners everywhere, but it didn’t really matter to me too much at that point. Goal #1 was to get away from the horrible smell. Did I mention the smell yet? I think I may have.

So the moral of the story is that there are no street vendors worth their salt left in the Yokocho and all we found was disappointment. Maybe we went through the wrong doors and just got unlucky, but ultimately, it comes down to the fact that the stall just outside of Inokashira Koen is probably still the best place to get charcoal grilled yakitori that we know of. (Stay tuned for that post.)

Shinjuku

Please note: because we were worried that we would end up chopped into pieces and embalmed like the snake, no photographic evidence is available for “restaurant” #2.

Also note: There are a surprisingly small number of photos of Yokocho on the internet. Click here for a nice shot and map of the area.





Review: Yakitori Boy Philadelphia

19 01 2009

Yakitori Boy is confused. Is it a night club that should be in Old City? Is it a traditional izakaya? Is it trying to be a Japanese tapas bar? Is it real karaoke, or just a notch higher than the sad excuses for the other (smaller) karaoke boxes in Chinatown? Whatever it’s trying to be, busy and popular it is. Yakitori Boy

We were there with a group of eight, and had a two-hour reservation in one of the several private “boxes” on the second floor. Our room was $40/hour but others were cheaper or more expensive, depending on the capacity. When we arrived, Matt and I ordered a few items at the bar while we waited for the others. All grilled skewers are under $3 each, and the menu is pretty inexpensive, with all appetizers $10 and under and sushi rolls (3 per order) no more than $3.50.

I already knew exactly what I wanted: tsukune (chicken meatballs) and yaki onigiri, two of my staples at izakaya in Japan. The draft beers (Sapporo and Kirin Ichiban) were served in sub-zero temp glasses and iced up upon contact–perfection. I dug into the tsukune and although the flavoring was almost perfect, the texture was a bit off–instead of tender and juicy, it was a bit chewy and…compact. That is the only word I can think of to describe it.

yaki onigiriThe yaki onigiri, on the other hand, was perfect. Grilled dark with a thin crust on the outside and soft and fluffy on the inside. And at only $1.50, it was a complete steal.

chicken and shishamotako yakiWe also tried the chicken yakitori, shishamo (Japanese smelt), and tako yaki (octopus balls). The yakitori could have been flavored better, and the pieces of chicken were teeny tiny. The shishamo fit the bill. The tako yaki resembled the tsukune in that the flavor was all good, but the texture was lacking. Matt’s favorite part is the katsuobushi (dried, smoked, shaved tuna) sprinkled on top.

I was so intent on figuring out the elaborate but not very organized karaoke system that I failed to order many other items on the menu. Next time I plan to try the gyoza (veggie and pork); buta kimchi; Dragon roll (avocado and eel); grilled corn; grilled ginko nuts; and grilled salmon and scallion. At least.

I mentioned karaoke. Karaoke is somewhat of a science, especially when you are being charged by the hour. The system was horrible. Absolutely horrible. The selection, once you figured out the system, was decent. Enough said. I mentioned the confusing system to our server and he did say they might be upgrading, or at least adding songs, but I won’t hold my breath.

bar

The bar-system of karaoke, if you don’t feel like paying for the box, was uncivilized and chaotic. I loved it. At $1 a song and a 5-song minimum, it’s also pretty reasonable. There was no KJ–you submit your selections to the staff and keep track of your songs on the list on the TV screen. When it’s your turn, you have to grab the mics from the previous singers.

And just remember:

sign

Yakitori Boy definitely deserves another chance, and at those reasonable prices, I could eventually try everything I want to on the menu. (Not the sake bombs.)